Purgatory is a concept that won’t go away easily.  Though Catholics have embraced it since the Middle Ages, most Catholic’s views are more informed by the medieval writer Dante than the scriptures.  Protestants officially reject the doctrine as a human construct not found in the Bible, but the idea persists because it makes so much logical sense, as long as you accept a certain salvation by works in the first place.  Hardly anybody has been good enough to go to Heaven directly, and while a few may go straight to Hell, most folks land in some imprisoning middle ground where they get to work off their sentence.
            In “R.I.P.D.,” that middle ground is entered through a portal in the clouds, which can only be seen once you’re dead.  Nick (Ryan Reynolds) is a Boston cop who died in a  warehouse shootout, and the next thing he knows everything is in freeze frame (the 3-D effects are useful here), and he zips up through the portal in the clouds, only to land in….a small office, with a prim Proctor (Mary Louse Parker) behind the desk.  She explains to Nick that they know all about the dirty deal Nick pulled with his cop buddy, Hayes (Kevin Bacon), where they stole gold from a drug trafficker’s stash and didn’t bother to report it.  When Nick then tries to tell Hayes that he’s sorry he did it and wants out, Hayes makes sure Nick doesn’t survive the next drug bust.
            Ms. Proctor tells Nick that his punishment is to return to Earth in disguise, and help round up the “Dead-O’s,” those who are as good as damned, like skanky criminal types, and with a special de-materializer gun, send them down where they belong.  So it’s kind of like a continuation of Nick’s cop work, which he’s comfortable with, but not being partnered with Roy (Jeff Bridges), who’s a swaggering, tough-talking, full-of-himself Sheriff from the Old West who’s suffered through a few “extensions” of his sentence, for conduct unbecoming, you know.
            The humorous twist is that when they travel back down to earth (through a small elevator that takes them to a VCR repair store, where nobody ever goes), Nick and Roy don’t look like themselves.  Roy has the appearance of a Victoria ’s Secret model (Marisa Miller), and Nick assumes the persona of…an old Chinaman (James Hong).  He gets to upgrade, you know, when he performs well in his new job.
            Of course Nick and Roy continue to mess up, and their discipline is meted out by Ms. Proctor after first receiving a pictograph message through a pneumatic tube like you find at a drive-in bank.  Nick is still grieving about leaving his lovely wife, Julia (Stephanie Szostak), and apoplectic that she’s going to find out he was “dirty”, though he keeps telling himself that he did it for her, to provide for her better (this is one of the self-deceptions he’s going to have to get over, though the word “repentance” is not used).
            OK, can this sort of tongue-in-cheek extra-terrestrial parody be pulled off by these colorful characters, acting like they’re taking it seriously?  For the most part, yes, though of course the viewer’s suspension of disbelief is stretched to incredulity.  If you decide to go and play along, you’ll find a remarkably moral tale that assumes there will indeed be a personal Judgment for everyone, ready or not when the time comes.  There are plenty of biblical references to support that idea (just in Matthew, 5:22; 13: 36-43; 18:8-9; 25: 31-46), but there’s also a tantalizing reference to blood sacrifice, as well as a strange kind of reverse Tower of Babel dynamic……well, easier viewed than explained.  To take biblical allusions too seriously would be silly in a farcical comedy, anyway….or would it?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas